Amsterdam’s booming Eastern Harbor

Amsterdam
Amsterdam is a beautiful city famous for its narrow canal houses that during its golden age served as both homes and warehouses for merchant families waiting for their ship to come in. The historic heart of Amsterdam is an architectural treasure, and the Dutch didn’t stop building innovative spaces in the modern times. One of Amsterdam’s newest expansions is the Eastern Harbor Area.

A century ago this area served freighters and steamers, but with the larger ships of the modern age, that industry has shifted to the Western Harbor. Now many of the old buildings have been converted into homes and apartments and new ones have cropped up, designed by leading Dutch architects.

The area isn’t far from Amsterdam’s Centraal Station and is best seen by bike. I rented a bike from Mac Bike, conveniently located in the station, and set out on a typically overcast Dutch autumn day with a city guide. While it was helpful to have a guide along, Mac Bike has a good map/brochure of the area if you want to go solo.

I love seeing Amsterdam by bike, and the Eastern Harbor Area and Amsterdam’s Eastern Districts are much more open than the historic center. They offer sweeping views of the harbor and the bike lanes are free of drug tourists, who have a bad habit of shuffling zombie-like in the middle of bike lanes in the city center.

%Gallery-139393%The first landmarks you see heading east from Centraal Station are the Maritime Museum’s traditional 17th century facade and the decidedly ship-like modern building for NEMO, Amsterdam’s science center pictured above. This mix of old and new continues as you go eastwards.

Several old warehouses have been converted into apartments, and a hotel that once took emigrants to the New World now serves tourists and business travelers. I found the modern buildings to be more interesting since they’re so unlike what you usually see in Amsterdam. City planners hired different architects to build different buildings on the same street so that you get a wide variety of style within the same view.

Stylized modern bridges take you from one island to the next and offer views down various canals where homeowners dock their boats. Fountains and little parks offer open areas. All in all it was a fun ride and something to consider if you like architecture or just want a healthy two or three hours away from the city center. Try to pick a better day than I did, though!

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Amsterdam’s Maritime Museum!

This trip was partially funded by Amsterdam’s Tourism and Congress Bureau and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

Preserved human flesh at Amsterdam’s Tattoo Museum

preserved human flesh
This is exactly what it looks like–the preserved human flesh of a tattooed man. Judging from the style and subject, I’d say it’s from a nineteenth century American sailor. I spotted it sitting on the director’s desk at Amsterdam’s Tattoo Museum.

Ah, Amsterdam! I’ve visited you so many times and yet you always have new surprises for me.

Amsterdam is a great city for museums. There are two sex museums, a marijuana museum, and a heap of world-class art museums. In a city known for extremes, it’s hard to stand out, yet the Tattoo Museum manages to do just that.

The product of three decades of collecting by local eccentric and celebrity Henk Schiffmacher, the collection includes everything and anything related to tattooing that Henk has been able to gather up from God-knows-where.

I have dim memories of a previous visit to this museum back in 1993. Then it was in a small space crammed with odd artifacts. It’s been closed for the past several years and now it has just reopened in two rambling old mansions. When I visited they were still setting up and the exhibits were spread out in disarray. Henk was running around screaming at the contractors for being behind schedule while a local TV crew dogged his steps. I wandered off on my own to explore.

%Gallery-139057%It was fun to see this half-completed museum-in-the-making and while most of the collection was still in boxes, there was no shortage of curiosities to study. The Tattoo Museum covers the entire history of skin art and has artifacts from all over the world, including needles, old shop signs, photographs, flashes (ready-made designs), and freak show posters. Some of the items, like the statues from the South Seas and the stuffed monkey, show that like all true collectors, Henk can’t resist a cool item even if it doesn’t exactly fit in his collection. To my disappointment I didn’t see any shrunken heads. Maybe he hadn’t unpacked them yet.

The new space allows much more room for displays and the upper floor is being turned into a tattoo parlor where several expert skin artists can give you a memento of your visit. Henk is a tattoo artist himself and if you’re lucky you might even get him to pick up a needle and mark you. Much cooler than visiting the gift shop!

As a fan off all things macabre, I was attracted by the preserved human flesh, one of the few things I clearly remember from my previous visit. There are several of them in the museum’s collection. These pickled tattoos aren’t unique. London’s Wellcome Collection has 300 specimens of preserved human flesh bearing tattoos collected by a French military surgeon who cut them from the bodies of dead French soldiers. I’ve come across examples in other collections too.

A cynic might say they’re fake, and some of them undoubtedly are. Unscrupulous carnies or salesmen could produce them easily enough from animal skin. Yet I believe most are real, like those from the Wellcome Collection. Back around the turn of the last century there was a craze in collecting human remains, whether to study the shapes of skulls or preserving scalps or for various other reasons. It would have been easy enough to collect tattooed skin from cadavers. One hopes that the next-of-kin received compensation, but that probably didn’t happen most of the time.

Rather than see these human remains as something disgusting and demeaning, I find them rather life-affirming. The common working Joe is forgotten soon after he dies. How many nineteenth century sailors can you name who weren’t famous explorers? Yet their self-expression through body art lives on. We can look at these samples and catch a glimpse of someone who has long been dead.

Like the guy whose skin adorns the top of this post. There he is, with his patriotic wife and his ship. Do the letters “A.R.” stand for his name, or hers? Or do they stand for “American Republic” as the U.S. was sometimes referred to back then? We can’t know, but this man hasn’t been entirely lost to history. I know about him now, and thanks to Henk, you know about him too.

I wandered around for two hours and Henk was still bustling around with his contractors. I decided he was too busy to bother. When I go back to Amsterdam next year I’ll arrange an interview, because I’m dying to talk with the man behind such a unique collection.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Amsterdam’s booming Eastern Docklands!

This trip was partially funded by Amsterdam’s Tourism and Congress Bureau and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own. I have no idea what the Tourism Bureau thinks of preserved human flesh.

Amsterdam art exhibit focuses on the Antwerp school

Amsterdam, Hermitage, Rubens
The Hermitage Amsterdam starts an important exhibition tomorrow focusing on the Antwerp school of Flemish art.

Rubens, Van Dyck & Jordaens: Flemish paintings from the Hermitage runs until 16 March 2012 and features almost a hundred paintings and drawings from some of the great names in Flemish art. Peter Paul Rubens is especially well covered, including his famous work Venus and Adonis, painted around 1614 and shown above. Rubens was hugely influential, teaching Anthony van Dyck and inspiring Jacob Jordaens. Both of these masters have several works in the exhibition, as do many lesser-known names.

Hermitage Amsterdam is a branch of the St. Petersburg Hermitage and the works all come from there. Since its opening two years ago, it has been one of the major art destinations in Amsterdam.

While Amsterdam attracts a lot of tourists for its legal pot and prostitution, it’s so much more than Sin City. Amsterdam one of the art capitals of the world and a good base for many daytrips to places like Delft and several Dutch castles. I will be exploring Amsterdam and hopefully Antwerp next month in a miniseries right here on Gadling.

Museums plan to sell collections to survive

museum, museums
Museums in The Netherlands have received some bad news–national funding for arts and culture will drop from 900 million euros to 700 million in 2013. Now museums and other institutions are scrambling to figure out how to survive.

The Wereldmuseum in Rotterdam has come up with a controversial plan. They’re going to sell off their African and American collections in order to raise money.

While this has caused an understandable uproar, it makes sense in some ways. The Wereldmuseum’s main collections are in Asian and Pacific art, such as the Korwar figurines from New Guinea pictured above courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. These will not be sold. Other museums in the country are known for African and American art, so the Dutch and the tourists won’t be left without. It’s also a major opportunity for museums that still have decent funding for new acquisitions, assuming there are any.

There are still plenty of downsides. The Wereldmuseum and any other institution that tries this tactic will lose some of the diversity of their collections. It makes it harder for them to participate in the exchanges of artwork that help create bonds between different museums and the creation of major exhibitions. The sale will probably also see some of artifacts leave the country or go into private hands, and out of sight of the general public.

For the Wereldmuseum in particular it means losing some of its unique character. The collection is partially made up of objects brought back by Dutch traders, who in past centuries were one of the major economic powers on the high seas and traded to all corners of the globe. At the moment the collection reflects that. To secure its future, the Wereldmuseum will have to discard some of its past.

It may even undermine its own name. Wereldmuseum translates to “World Museum”.